If we could return to that upper room and pay $8.00 for the headset and put on our earphones to listen to the story, perhaps narrated by James Earl Jones, we would hear about how Jesus’ followers, who numbered around 120 had gathered in Jerusalem to participate in the process of filling the vacancy on the Board of Apostles left by Judas Iscariot’s embarrassing and messy departure. I’ve always been intrigued by the process by which they replaced Judas. The final choice was made by prayer and the casting of lots.
Those gathered were there to celebrate the Jewish Thanksgiving Feast called Pentecost. This was a major celebration. Here’s how Barbara Brown Taylor describes the prelude to that first Pentecost. “They have to come,” Taylor says, “it’s one of three obligatory feast days of the year, and so they go: Medes and Elamites from the east; Romans from the west; Libyans from the south; and Cappadocians from the north – all of them streaming into the city and setting up their own camps, so that walking through the crowded city is like taking a trip around the world, with Arabic singing over here, and Libyan laughter over there and, wafting over it all, the smell of Egyptian food cooking over an open fire.
“There’s only one group missing, “says Taylor, “a small band of orphaned disciples who are not walking the streets at all but huddled together behind locked doors for fear of their enemies. For all practical purposes, they and their movement are dead – leaderless, powerless, visionless- the soul survivors of a catastrophe that has robbed them of their future. The world has become a frightening place for them and they have barricaded themselves against it, believing that their own safety lay in sticking together, locking their doors, and keeping everyone else out.” End quote.
It was in this house where they had gathered that there came the sound of a rushing wind. They were stunned to see what appeared like tongues of fire on each one of them. The text tells us that they were filled with the Holy Spirit and that they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the words.
I imagine that there were an incredible number of emotions that were played out in that upper room: terror, panic, energy, awe, reverence and fear. The tongues as of fire were disconcerting. The Holy Spirit created a movement through speech—and the ability to bridge and broaden the faith came through languages.
What we are given is an account of empowerment—it is a transformation story. Not many weeks earlier, Peter, had allowed himself to be intimidated by a servant girl in a courtyard. He had denied having known Jesus. On this day, the power of the Spirit gave him a spine. He boldly stood up to the critics and offered an interpretation regarding the powerful experience that they had all just shared. He preached utilizing the words and promises of the Prophet Joel.
One of the outcomes was the new spirit of generosity and openness that was forged among the believers. We are told that after being filled with the Holy Spirit that they began to share all things in common. There was a heightened ability to communicate. There was a deepened sense of boldness and courage, and a new capacity to share.
The coming of the Holy Spirit was for the purpose of equipping those disciples for the next stage of their journey—broadening their faith. Their religious heritage had taught them about being exclusively God’s chosen people. Their Pentecost experience opened them to the reality that the way of Jesus was open to all. The powerful experience broke all the rules about who was included and who was excluded. It demanded that they all get involved. It demanded that they re-think, re-learn and re-claim how they did ministry. Sometimes we too have to experience something that pushes us to a new reality…a new way of being.
On May 1st of last year, while I was sitting in the Ordination Service of Jodie Tooley, in Moscow, Idaho, I felt a welling up of emotion. It was a moment of knowing that the Spirit was powerfully in the midst of the Ordination Service. You see, the groundwork of the broadening had already been painfully laid. It began when Ross Aalgaard of Judson Church, and Lynn Walton, of UBC, had been denied recognition of their ordination by our then region, Mid-American Baptist Churches. The Spirit was demanding broadening of our understanding of our languages. The GLBT language was being denied by our denomination. The call of God’s Spirit on both of our communities of faith was to advocate for inclusion and to stand firm. Leaving institutions comes with a price. It was hard work for both communities to continue to speak truth. It ultimately demanded that both churches leave our region and find a new home. It demanded that we spend months of time investigating other regions to determine where we could find a denominational home that would accept our call to be inclusive congregations? And, when each church ultimately ended up in the American Baptist Churches of Rochester-Genesee, it has demanded a high price on our regional budget line. Airline fees to New York are expensive. Hotel costs to attend annual meetings are expensive. Yes, there is a price to Pentecost. Broadening the faith is a commitment. And, what both churches have learned is that change takes time –broadening the inclusive call of the Gospel is a long term commitment.
Last May first, in that Ordination Service, I celebrated the people of Moscow, Idaho, who called a pastor, who had recently graduated with awards for excellence from the American Baptist Seminary of the West, who had fulfilled four units of Clinical Pastoral Education in a hospital in the heart of the tenderloin of San Francisco, who had excelled in her internships in two churches and as a lesbian, had trusted in the God who had called her to make a way out of seemingly no-way. In the midst of the pounding storm that had been part of the Ordination Service, there came a rainbow like experience as Jodie pronounced the benediction as the sun poured in from the windows.
For me, it was a Pentecost like experience. We were there to bless one of our own members who had dared to follow God’s call and had taken the risks and the hard work that came with five years of preparation before the ministry site was revealed. It was truly God’s Spirit that broke through the final barriers around sexual orientation.
The story of Peter and Pentecost does not have to be a rather unusual story that we read once a year. It can and does represent the call upon our lives as people of faith and the power that we have been offered. It demands that we trust it and receive it and dare to step out. However, it also demands that we be willing to walk through a great deal of resistance and what are often very messy transitions. Sometimes, we are fortunate to experience the broadening in our own lifetimes…and sometimes it takes our lifetime to push and prod against political, institutional, denominational and family barricades of resistance. Sometimes we are called upon to learn the language of those on the margins, those who have no voice; those who consciously or unconsciously are the outsiders.
To claim Pentecost as our heritage is to move towards the Spirit’s call upon our own lives and that of this 160 year old congregation. We’re another generation in the continuing movement of faith that is being asked to listen for God’s vision and dreams on our lives while trusting the Spirit for empowerment. May we have the courage to listen for the voice of the Spirit. Amen.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Day of Pentecost,” The Abingdon Women’s Preaching Annual, series 1 – Year B, Compiled and Edited by Jana L. Childers and Lucy A. Rose, Nashville: Abingdon Press, l996. P. 117=118